When she was 5, Jacqueline Robles was already dreaming of going to college.
Her father was in jail, her mother was addicted to drugs, and she and her two older brothers were living in separate foster homes.
“But even in kindergarten, I was a school person,” Robles said.
By her early teenage years, that inclination had become a goal.
“The whole mindset of going to college, that was my number one thing.”
That mindset helped steer her through the tumult of Los Angeles County’s foster care system.
“It wasn’t about physically where I was at: group homes, shelters, foster homes,” she recalled. “It was about me knowing in my mind where I wanted to be.”
Today Robles is a freshman in college, studying business at California State University-Long Beach. She lives in a dorm, has a job on campus as a resident advisor, and plans to earn a doctorate.
As the spectacle of commencements unfurls this spring on college campuses across California, students like Robles are rare. Only a tiny fraction of young people earning degrees have come from foster care.
Robles, 18, was luckier than most. A year after she and her brothers entered the system, their grandmother was allowed to take them in. But that arrangement unraveled when she was 16 and chaos set in. Robles attended five different high schools and cycled through four residential placements.
With each move, her grades dropped from the As she’d earned as a child. “I had so many new things to worry about, like where am I going to sleep tonight,” Robles said.
But Robles held tight to her dream of going to college – even though the odds were heavily stacked against her.
About 30 percent of high school students in California go on to graduate from college, but only about 8 percent of foster youth make it that far, according to research by the Public Policy Institute of California and the University of Chicago. Young people who spend their teen years in foster care are more likely to land in jail than to earn a college degree.
Those bleak prospects deter some students from even considering higher-ed options.
“A lot of kids have the mindset that they can’t do college because that’s what the statistics say,” Robles said. “You think if you’re not lucky enough to have Mommy and Daddy and a college trust fund, there’s no way college is possible.”
Robles took advantage of a host of California services aimed at making college more accessible. Under the umbrella of Guardian Scholars programs, former foster youths can get academic guidance and tutoring, help with personal issues like child care and employment, and grants and scholarships that help pay for tuition and housing.
But fewer than half of former foster youths who want to go to college take full advantage of those benefits, or even know they exist.
Robles credits her success at cobbling together a financial aid package to a mentor who worked at her Hollywood group home when she was a high school student. Armen Ter-Barsegyan introduced her to scholarship options and walked her through the process.
“He was able to sit and talk with me for hours,” Robles said. “That created the reality of it for me.”
Ter-Barsegyan, now a graduate student at UCLA, spent three years as an education specialist with LA Youth Network, a local nonprofit that offers housing and counseling for homeless and foster youths. In California, youth are eligible for foster care until age 21. But once young people turn 18, they must be working, in school or pursuing job training to retain foster care benefits. If not, older foster youth lose out on housing and other services, leaving them vulnerable to winding up on the streets or couch-surfing.
The transition from high school to adulthood can be abrupt and challenging in other ways, too.
“When you’re living in a group home, everyone is constantly reviewing how you perform,” Ter-Barsegyan said. “Did you complete your chores? How clean is your room? Every move you make is judged. Then you turn 18, and you’re suddenly on your own.”
Young people coming out of foster care can be hard on themselves and unprepared for independence. Many haven’t learned basic living skills: how to budget time, how to manage money, how to ask for help and how to accept it.
They are often smart and resourceful, Ter-Barsegyan said, but they have fears and triggers that can sabotage them.
Promise Sunday, 21, was one of those young people. Like Robles, she was driven to attend college by her own ambition. She graduated last month from California State University, Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in social work, and is about to begin a paid internship with an organization that works with foster youth.
At age 9, she and her older sister were sent from Nigeria to live with their father in Los Angeles; their mother believed life would be better for her daughters here.
But their father died suddenly, one week after her 11th birthday. That launched the girls on an odyssey through the child welfare system; Sunday has lived in seven foster homes and four group homes.
Academics always came easy for her. Her mother and father had both stressed the importance of education. But making friends was hard.
“I kept my situation to myself,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. Once you use the word ‘foster kid’ people look at you like, ‘Oh, poor her.’ I just wanted to fit in and be like a normal kid.”
Instead, she was bullied over her appearance, teased about her uncombed hair and hand-me-down clothes. “I was a super angry kid,” she said. “I used to get in fights because of that.”
Even little things could set her off, like watching a classmate pull a house key from her backpack. “It was jealousy for the most part, over how different our lives were,” she said. “I’ve never had a house key … or a key to anything.”
That changed when she moved into student housing at Cal State-LA. Now she has a paid meal plan and a key to the dorm.
Still, those feelings of being an outsider have been hard to shake. She shares her dorm suite with seven other young women.
“If they get an ‘A’ on a test, they call to tell their moms,” she said. “When I get an ‘A’ in a class, I just tell myself ‘OK you got an ‘A.’ … Those celebratory moments don’t happen for us.”
When she graduates in June, Sunday will have to find a job and a place to live. But she’s trying to look past those hurdles and focus on the future. She plans to become a social worker and advocate for foster children, to help smooth their way to college.
Teens in group homes tend to have tunnel vision, Robles said. “They don’t see the options in their future, they just think about how they feel right now. That’s what leads so many to drugs and prostitution and AWOL-ing.”
Some of those young people land on Franco Vega’s door. The RightWay Foundation, which he founded in 2011, helps teens access counseling and prepare for jobs or college.
“Improving things like financial aid is wonderful,” he said. “But without providing trauma-informed care, that’s like giving them the toothpaste without the brush, the water, the sink.
“A lot of these kids are carrying trauma from what they went through with their parents: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse. Then when they got into the system, no one gave them proper services to heal, just passed them through a dozen group homes.”
“We all love the great success stories: the homeless foster kid who winds up at Harvard,” Vega said. “But only 3 percent of the half-million kids who graduate from college every year come out of foster care … There has to be someone in their lives who understands what they need.”
Project Tipping Point is trying to provide that “someone.” A program of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, it targets young adults in South Los Angeles who grew up in foster care.
From a small bungalow on the Los Angeles Trade Tech College campus, Kenta Darley-Usmar and LaNae Williams focus on young people who don’t believe that college is for them.
Some have tried and failed; they landed on academic probation or racked up too much debt. Others are homeless, pregnant or parenting, carrying criminal records or wrestling with health issues. More than 40 percent spent their school years in special education programs; others have learning disabilities yet to be diagnosed.
“Most don’t see post-secondary education as a viable option,” Darley-Usmar said. “No one has ever talked about it with them, and they have more immediate needs. Making that first step toward college is a barrier itself.”
The project offers help with everything from finding childcare to filling out financial aid forms to talking with professors when academic issues arise. Everything they do involves face-to-face connections, what Williams calls a “warm handoff.”
“We’re not psychologists, but we know that being there matters,” she said. “Being consistent, letting them know we care, that we’re not here to judge them.”
The team understands that students’ trauma can manifest in many ways. They might resent authority, make poor judgments, give up too easily.
“We have to get to know them and teach life skills,” Darley-Usmar said. “They’re learning to navigate a system that isn’t always sensitive to their needs.”
And success isn’t always measured by how many credits they’ve earned. “Even if they don’t get the 60 units they need [for a degree],” he said, “college is helping them figure out how to move through life and communicate effectively.
“Our ultimate goal is to get everyone in a stable place where they don’t need us, where they will be able to persist — in college and beyond.”
Sandy Banks is a lifelong journalist and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She is currently a senior fellow for the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and a consultant on media issues.